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Founders Of The 'The Sound Of Philadelphia' On 50 Years Of Soul

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What is the sound of a city? If you are from Detroit, probably Motown. If you're from New Orleans, probably jazz. But if you're from Philadelphia, well, what can it be but Philly soul? In the '70s and '80s, it was known as The Sound of Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE TRAIN")

O'JAYS: (Singing) People all over the world, everybody, join hands, join, start a love train, love train.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU DONT KNOW ME BY NOW")

HAROLD MELVIN AND THE BLUE NOTES: (Singing) If you don't know me by now...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL I SEE YOU AGAIN")

THREE DEGREES: (Singing) When will I see you again?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO STOPPIN' US NOW")

MCFADDEN AND WHITEHEAD: (Singing) Ain't no stopping us now. We're on the move.

MARTIN: These are just a few of the classics that came out of Philadelphia International Records, the studio behind greats like the O'Jays, the Three Degrees and Teddy Pendergrass. Philadelphia International Records is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, so we thought we'd talk to its founders, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. These two Grammy-winning producers and songwriters co-founded the label in November 1971 and helped to bring the sound of the city to life and to the rest of the world. And they are with us now.

Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on this tremendous anniversary.

LEON HUFF: Thank you.

KENNY GAMBLE: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: So I just - I know that the two of you have been together for so long, working together for so long. How did you two meet? I don't think I've ever heard that story. Who wants to start? Mr. Gamble?

GAMBLE: Well, of course, you know, a lot of people ask us this. Huff and I met - it was long before in 1971, though. It was around 1960-something - '67 or '66, somewhere around there.

We both were working in the Shubert building on Broad Street in Philadelphia. We both were trying to do the same thing. We're trying to find out as much as we could about the music industry, you know what I mean? Because Huff had recorded records and had groups before he met me. But once we got together to work, I think it was magic from then on, once we started to write together, because it was easy. It was a miraculous moment, I would say, that - when Huff and I started writing songs together. And that was it.

From then on, I mean, we just worked every day. We were writing. And we became producers. And we had big ideas. And some of them came true, and some of them didn't.

MARTIN: Mr. Huff, maybe you take the next one. The two of you have had, as Mr. Gamble was pointing out - I mean, it's been an incredible run. I mean, you've written and produced some 120 albums, more than 40 of those going gold or platinum. You were both inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. So, Mr. Huff, why do you think this partnership has worked so well? And how have you kept it together for so long?

HUFF: Enjoying one another's company - that's the first thing. You work together like that, you got to enjoy one another. And that's how it was when we met. We had fun together. Being a songwriter wasn't my first dream. I wanted to be a studio musician. And that's what I wanted to be way before I was even thinking about writing songs. So I was developing as a musician, playing with a band. I was writing, like, pop songs, you know? I was developing as a songwriter. But when me and Gamble started writing together, I was like, sort of like, being myself playing - because I was playing songs with other producers and whatever. But when me and Gamble started writing, we started developing our own style of writing.

MARTIN: I got to ask about that. Maybe, Mr. Gamble - maybe you want to take this one. How did it work when the two of you were working together? What would it be? Like, Mr. Huff would be on the piano, and he would just start - like, how did you develop your sound?

GAMBLE: Well, I think first, me and Huff would sit around and talk, you know, about events that's happening in the world, stuff that we did at the Hi-Hat (ph) or at the - there was a - it was a club we used to go to called A Fantasy (ph) and just - we'd gather up some ideas. And once we got around that piano, we would start singing and dancing and laughing and making our work fun. It was fun, what we were doing. And it was beautiful.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GAMBLE: It was a beautiful thing. We used to write just about every day. And we would have a list of titles. Each title was like a story to me. And Huff would play them chords, and that's all we needed. You only had about three to four minutes in those days to write a song or to produce it or whatever. And you had - so you had to condense that song pretty much in a couple of different parts. The first part would be the introduction, which is great, because when you hear the introductions on our records, you'll never forget them.

MARTIN: That is the truth. That is true.

GAMBLE: Like...

MARTIN: Yeah.

GAMBLE: ..."Back Stabbers." That introduction that Huff put on that, you'll never forget it. You'll never - you know exactly what song that is when that introduction comes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE O'JAYS SONG, "BACK STABBERS")

HUFF: A little science got involved with our process. I call it that because there's a science to everything. So our science was I rigged the piano. We had an upright piano. And I rigged it. I use that word, rigged, because that's what it is. It was rigged, and it wasn't the normal piano that we wrote on, because I took thumbtacks and put it behind all the hammers.

MARTIN: Oh, well, how...

HUFF: And...

MARTIN: ...Come?

HUFF: And - it just came to my mind.

MARTIN: (Laughter) What? OK.

HUFF: Because the piano that I was - that I taught myself to play on at home in Camden, the bass was fast. So - piano wasn't fast enough for me, so I - something told me to go to the drugstore and get those box - thumbtacks. And I put it behind each hammer, all 88 of them. So that rigged that piano. And it took the top off. Most of the guys up there - all of a sudden, I go in the office, and I see the tops off. So I stripped mine. And all the sound just came out. But those thumbtacks behind the hammers made that piano something else.

MARTIN: That's amazing. So thumbtacks was one of the key elements of the Philly sound, huh?

HUFF: Well, it was a part of our process.

GAMBLE: We still got that piano, too, Huff, you know?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GAMBLE: That piano was a central part...

HUFF: Right.

GAMBLE: ...Of what we were doing.

HUFF: Exactly.

MARTIN: Where is that piano? I hope it's someplace special. Where is it? Do...

GAMBLE: It's in storage.

MARTIN: Oh.

GAMBLE: That's where it's...

MARTIN: Storage? Why isn't it in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

GAMBLE: It could be in a museum (laughter).

HUFF: (Unintelligible) came out of that piano.

GAMBLE: It's a couple of different museums now. One of them is the one in Washington, D.C. I think that's the African American museum.

MARTIN: Yeah, the Museum of African American History and Culture.

GAMBLE: Yeah. They got a small display of the Philly sound in there, you know? But, you know, when the spirit make it move, it'll move. It'll make it, because that's a special piano.

MARTIN: That sure is. Well, thank you both so much for talking with me. This has been such a delight. How do you want people to remember your work? What - is there something in particular you want them to think about when they think about Gamble and Huff? Mr. Huff?

HUFF: Think of us - one of the greatest that ever did it.

GAMBLE: I'd like for the music to speak for itself. And it so far has been doing that because - I want them to remember that message in that music and how that music made people feel, because the world is in such a bad shape because people don't know how to get along with one another. And so we wrote songs that would make people feel better, make people see better. And I think that's part of the longevity of our music because it speaks to the soul.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for talking with us. That's Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the legendary producers and songwriters behind Philadelphia International Records, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, congratulations to you both. It's truly been an honor to visit with you.

GAMBLE: Thank you.

HUFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MFSB'S "TSOP (THE SOUND OF PHILADELPHIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.